Sylvester Sims began drawing before he learned his ABC’s. Now, almost 80 years later, he is recognized as one of Milwaukee’s leading African-American artists.
Sims is a recipient of a Black Excellence Award, given annually by the Milwaukee Times, and has been featured on local radio and television.
Sylvester Sims’ origins were about as humble as you can get. His family came north from Louisiana after the Klan burned a cross on his parents’ lawn.
Sims said that there were only a handful of African-Americans in town when his family arrived in Milwaukee, and they lived in the city’s most run-down houses. Sims’ father walked miles to work each day from the family’s home in the Sixth Ward, now known as Bronzeville.
Sims’ family came north as Baptists, but converted to Catholicism and joined St. Benedict the Moor parish on Ninth and State. As a child, Sims gazed at the paintings on the walls of the church and was inspired to try his hand at art. “I was just fascinated,” he said.
He started by copying a sketch of a cowboy out of a newspaper. Today, he has a body of work that includes hundreds of paintings, pastels and watercolors, most with African-American themes. His work hangs in galleries and private homes.
Sims is known locally as both an artist and as a larger-than-life personality, who excelled in sports as well as painting and drawing. He won a Golden Gloves championship and took top honors at the Amateur Athletic Union state diving meet in 1944 when he was 16 years old. He also played semi-pro football.
Growing up, Sims remembers generally peaceful race relations, with an undercurrent of prejudice. When he brought his art homework to school, his teacher refused to believe a black child could draw that well. At his mother’s urging, Sims proved the teacher wrong by redoing the sketch in class.
Sims said he never made his living as an artist. He retired from Miller Brewing Company around 1980. Since then he’s had the time to expand and develop his art.
He likes painting portraits and landscapes the best — especially portraits, and lavishes extra attention on the eyes, where a subject’s personality is best revealed.
Sometimes Sims paints from photographs, while other times he paints from his own experiences. “I just paint what I see,” Sims said. Once he was impressed when he saw blind children touching the face of a clown, he recalled. Later he painted the scene, saying, “It’s an image I’ll never forget.”
Now in his mid-80s, Sims has recently had some health issues. His painting has become a sort of therapy, he said, and a way to relax. It takes his mind off his aches and pains. “I don’t think about the pain when I work.”
Sims said he had no formal training as an artist, but along the way a few teachers recognized his talent and encouraged him. He said that he taught his own children to draw.
He and his wife also taught the children to appreciate music. When the children were young, according to Sims, he and his wife did not have the money to go anywhere. But the family had a shortwave radio, so they spent time listening to all kinds of music. Their son, Terry Sims, is a musician.
Sims is well known for his efforts to teach others about art and he continues to help many other artists refine their skills. “I like to give back,” he said.